What Would We Have Done? (What Are We Doing?)
[For an audio recording of this sermon, click here]
A sermon on Luke 19:28-44
I was recently listening to an episode of the Good Ancestor podcast in which the host, Layla Saad, was interviewing author Glennon Doyle about her efforts to be a force for positive change in the world. Some of their conversation focused on Glennon’s experience with becoming more conscious of the racial realities in our country, and in that conversation she told a story about an interaction with her two daughters several years ago:
Glennon was reading a book about the Civil Rights movement with her daughters when her youngest pointed to a picture of one of the marches. She had noticed that, along with the African American marchers, there were some white marchers as well, and she asked “Mommy, would we have marched with them?” Now, Glennon is a deeply empathetic and good-hearted person, who exemplifies loving out loud. She rejects bigotry and racism in her life, and so her instinctive response was to say: “Of course we would have been marching.” But before she could open her mouth to offer that reply her older daughter said something very different. She said: “No. We wouldn’t have been marching. We aren’t marching now, so we wouldn’t have been marching then.”
I’m quite sure that was really hard to hear. But one of the things that I deeply respect about Glennon Doyle is that this innocent but inciteful critique from her daughter did not generate defensiveness. She didn’t equivocate about how complicated racial justice issues are, or opine about how far things have come. Rather, her daughter’s analysis caused her to take a careful look at her life, and to make some real changes in it, because she was willing to question the assumptions she made – without thinking – about whether her life really reflected the thing she believed about herself.
I would like us all to take a nudge from Glennon Doyle’s example today, and let today’s gospel challenge us to ask what would we have done… if we had been there, 2,000 years ago?
Would we have marched?
Would we have been able to open ourselves to the dangerous, scandalous, status-quo-shattering work of Jesus, regardless of the cost?
This week I’m not asking you to write down your answers, but I do ask you to think carefully about the question, in all the challenges that it includes. And to do that, we have to go beyond the waving palm branches, and the choruses of All Glory, Laud & Honor, and really dig into the story. Putting ourselves in the shoes of its characters and honestly asking ourselves. What would we have done?
For instance, what would we have done if followers of Jesus took possession of our private property with almost no explanation?
After all, that’s an essential part of this story – it sets up the whole procession.
Jesus sends two of his disciples into the village and tells them to take a young colt that is tied there. NOT to first find the owner and ask permission; NOTto negotiate to borrow it; NOT to present the details of why it was needed… just to take it.
And lest we assume that there must be some cultural convention of which we are not aware that makes this action, somehow, not stealing, Jesus knocks that idea down. He tells his disciples what to do if they are challenged, because they are doing something that deserves to be challenged. And, of course, it is. The owners of the colt ask the disciples just what they think they are doing. To which the disciples respond, as they were taught: “The Lord has need of it.”
It’s not much of an explanation, if you think about it.
What “Lord” are we talking about here?
And why should the disciples be believed?
And what obligation do the owners of the colt have to surrender an animal that belongs to them in order to meet the needs of this “Lord” who apparently can’t afford to buy his own ride.
Perhaps the most astonishing thing in this whole scene is the owners’ acquiescence. Their willingness to let the disciples just walk off with their property. It raises the question: Would we be willing to give up our personal property for Jesus’ unexplained purposes?
Or what about the followers who spread their cloaks on the ground, and shouted a kingly welcome to Jesus as he approached the royal city? In Luke’s account this is the work of a multitude of Jesus’ disciples, not a crowd from the city. Presumably these are people who have already bought into Jesus’ mission, or at least their understanding of it.
But still, this procession is something new. When they shout their blessing they are quoting from Psalm 118 (and fulfilling Jesus’ prophecy from a few weeks back, in Luke 13:35), but they make one significant change. They aren’t just blessing “the ONE who comes in the name of the Lord.” They are blessing the KING… and that one word makes their chant a cry of treason. Because the city already has a ruler. And a royal procession – even one on a donkey – is a direct challenge to that authority. A claim that Jesus’s lordship takes priority over governmental authorities.
The pharisees are being reasonable when they tell Jesus to rebuke his disciples. They fully understand that this display could earn a serious, even deadly response. Not just on Jesus and his followers but on the whole city. They aren’t being blind or petty when they challenge Jesus – they are being cautious. They are reminding him about the way things work, and the institutions that need to be respected.
But Jesus’s response is to brush them aside. To tell them their caution is pointless because, one way or another, his authority over earthly powers will be proclaimed.
Now, that’s easy enough for him to say. He has already accepted his coming execution (although, in the coming week we’ll see it’s still not really that easy). But what about us? Would we be among those lifting our voice in the subversive chant? Would we be willing to commit treason to celebrate Jesus’ leader-defying authority?
I imagine that the answers to both of my “what would we do” questions depend – at least to some degree – on whether we would be able to RECOGNIZE Jesus… recognize him for who he is: a visitation from God, the One who has both the right and the power to throw aside all of our other allegiances, and all of our assumptions about what is really important.
Because, if we could recognize him, then maybe we could let go of all our self-protective instincts, and our concerns for our rights, and for the structures that make us feel safe… and could learn “the things that lead to peace” (Luke 19:41).
Of course, that’s hard. It was hard for the people of Jerusalem, and, Jesus knows, it’s hard for us as well. That’s why he weeps over the city. Because he knows that God’s beloved children far too often choose the path that leads to our own devastation, rather than recognizing what God is doing among us.
And so, I wonder. Would we be able to recognize God’s way of peace? Would we be able to recognize God here among us, if he showed up today looking nothing like the inoffensive, unchallenging Savior we are eager to praise?
Lutheran pastor and missionary Elisabeth Johnson offers us a similar challenge. She comments, about this passage, that: “It is easy to judge the characters in the story from a distance. But are we really so very different from them? How quickly does our faith falter when God does not deliver what we are expecting? How quickly does our discipleship falter when we realize the great cost and risks of following Jesus? How often do our self-serving instincts lead us to deny Jesus and his claim on our lives?”
The point of all these questions is NOT to shame us, or to push us into defensiveness. If we can gain a bit of self-awareness that’s good, but it’s not actually the point of this scene. Because the story isn’t actually about us. It’s about Jesus.
Whether or not the people participate in the procession, Jesus is not going to be thwarted in his journey to the cross. And - besids - looking ahead in the story we know that pretty much all the people who make the “right” choice in this scene will make the wrong choice at some point in the next week.
That’s why Jesus is walking this path – because we can’t.
We can never be the ones who create grace in our lives. We can’t transform ourselves into the perfect disciples who will give up everything to follow Jesus, and be loyal to him alone, and always recognize God’s presence and activity in our lives. That’s the work of God through Christ. That’s why Jesus is going to the cross – to restore the relationship with God that we can never restore on our own.
But all that doesn’t mean the question about what we would do is irrelevant.
For one thing, it teaches us that we have the capacity to cause Jesus pain – his lament over Jerusalem can just as easily be a lament over us. And I don’t think we want to make Jesus weep. He’s the one who brought grace into our lives. And that grace makes us desire transformation – we want to be changed into people over whom he doesn’t have to weep.
And by asking the question about what we would do – or even better, the question of what are we doing now – we are tuning into the work of God’s grace in our lives:
The work of turning us away from selfishness and turning us toward the needs around us.
The work of setting our allegiance and our obedience to Christ alone.
The work of opening our eyes to the presence of God in our world that will guide us into God’s way of peace.
Jesus is on the road to the cross, and he invites us to recognize that this is the way of peace in which we are called to follow.
“Blessed is the king who comes in the name of the Lord.”
Thanks be to God.